Magic Moments: ‘Before Sunset’
by Evan Morgan
Richard Linklater’s cinema is made of moments. This is not to say that his films are valuable only in pieces, or that the parts are greater than the whole, but rather, that Linklater’s films find deepest insights through small gestures and hushed glances. For all of the hyper-articulate dialogue spouted by Linklater’s characters, it is the quiet moments that slowly build to flashes of revelation and human connection. They come on subtly, taking both the characters and the viewer by surprise. Fleeting and impermanent as these revelations are, Linklater cannot help but recognize their sublimity; these moments are magic.
That Linklater elevates mundane occurrences with a distinctly unfussy style makes them all the more remarkable. Perhaps the most powerful example of one such moment occurs partway through Before Sunset, Linklater’s middle-aged sequel to his youthful romance Before Sunrise. Nine years after Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse’s (Ethan Hawke) 24-hour affair, spent wandering around nocturnal Vienna, they are reunited in Paris. As in the previous film, they have a short time before they must part; Jesse has a plane to catch. But before he leaves, they meander through the streets and gardens of the city. After some initial awkwardness, it becomes clear that neither their deep affection nor their penchant for intelligent conversation have dimmed in the intervening years.
Their roaming conversation covers politics, love, and that night in Vienna. Linklater shoots their exchanges in real-time, via a series of unassuming long-takes. This choice forces the viewer to feel time as it progresses in the film, underscoring the transient nature of Celine and Jesse’s reunion. It gives Before Sunset uncommon urgency and emotional heft. The long-takes also compress the space between Celine and Jesse; they are consistently framed together in medium shots. This visual pattern culminates in one brief gesture, lasting a mere three seconds, framed in a typically unpretentious two-shot.
In the back of a taxicab, Celine finally lets down her emotional shield. Their banter can no longer mask her heartache and sense of loss. She tells him that their reunion has stirred up emotions she hoped to ignore. In an outburst of confused rage, Celine tells Jesse to leave the cab. Suddenly, Jesse, who has feigned the romantic optimism of his youthful self, reveals that he too has been wounded by the disappointments and compromises of growing older. His marriage is in shambles; he can’t remember the last time he was happy.
After cutting back and forth between close-ups of Jesse and Celine, Linklater cuts back to a two-shot. Jesse, on the left of the frame, briefly looks out the car window, holding back tears. On the right side of the frame, Celine’s face expresses her embarrassment and recognition of shared pain. The negative space of the back windshield splits the frame, emphasizing the gulf between them. But in a stunning moment of empathy, Celine hesitatingly reaches her hand towards the back of Jesse’s head, her hand crossing the divide of the windshield. Her hand hovers for two seconds. Before she can fully reach out to him, Jesse turns his head back and she quickly pulls it out of sight. Linklater cuts back to a close-up of Jesse, isolating these characters in their respective spaces once again.
In this moment, a flash of revelation occurs. But it is not Celine’s, nor Jesse’s. The revelation is ours. Unexpectedly, we recall words Celine spoke to Jesse nine years earlier:
“I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between. If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Jesse and Celine may have forgotten these words, but we have not. Nine years and two movies have built to this seemingly simple moment of attempted human connection. Linklater is too wise to suggest that the heartache of lost time can be healed in one gesture. But Celine’s words echo in our minds, and give us hope; something sacred exists in that flickering space between her hand and his head. In this single, humble shot Linklater reminds us that there is a kind of magic in this world. For a moment, it’s right there up on the screen.
Copyright © 2013 Evan Morgan